Many Tories seem to think that, however bad their problems, they are as nothing compared to the complaints about bullying and anti-Semitism so widely canvassed by ex-Labour MPs this week. They have yet to be accused of racism by tearful MPs, the polls appear to put them in a small lead and once Brexit is sorted they can get back to doing what they do best, or so the hope appears to be. (Though whether a party which claims to have learnt the lessons of the dementia tax proposal thinks that rushing through without proper debate death taxes by way of large increases in probate fees has really learnt those lessons is perhaps for another time.)
Much the same view animates the Labour leadership. Ignore the pro-forma expressions of disappointment. The departing MPs are wrong, opportunistic, being manipulated, self-interested 0r simply don’t like the new more voter-friendly leadership; the sooner they leave, the better seems to be the feeling.
But it’s not just in this somewhat delusional and complacent response that the parties resemble each other. Consider:-
The Mandate That Must Be Obeyed: Given the way some MPs talk about the referendum result, you would think that the majority for Leaving the EU was 82/18. In the ever more shrill insistence that the referendum result must be enacted no matter what or how, no matter how opinion may have changed, no matter how damaging the consequences of how the Tories have chosen to implement it may be, no matter how the facts may have changed, in the insistence that any pause, any rethinking, any search for confirmation that this is what the country wants to do now in light of what it now knows is somehow the death of democracy.
The Tories have started to resemble those on the Left demanding the implementation of Conference resolutions, now, no ifs, no buts, no concessions to practicalities that made Labour Conferences in the 1970’s and 1980’s such brutal affairs and compelling viewing. Impossible promises are in the process of being pickled into rigid dogma. The Will of the People has become a new (and very French) addition to our constitution.
Similarly, Corbyn’s supporters point to his two victories with Labour members. True. The small matter that his MPs voted that they had No Confidence in him is brushed aside as inconsequential and unimportant and was ignored. Who cares what MPs think in a Parliamentary democracy? The members love him and have voted for him. The leader needs no other mandate. These are dangerously reductive ways of looking at how democratic legitimacy and consent that lasts are built and maintained, especially in a divided country.
Demands for purity: There is only one way. Anything else sullies the purity of the goal to be reached. Any compromise is bad. Any agreement which does not give us everything we want is a trap. Any reaching out to others is a sign of weakness. All that is needed is faith and standing firm and Utopia will be ours. The complex and messy realities of working out a modus vivendi with our European neighbours can be discarded for a pure No Deal Brexit, untainted by anything as mundane as customs forms, tariffs, approvals, licences and the rest.
The concept of an insurance policy, invented by the British over 300 years ago, is an intolerable restraint. “Ourselves alone” seems to be the motto. A shame the Sinn Fein MPs do not take up their seats. Perhaps they might educate some in the Tory party on what such noble-sounding statements can lead to in practice.
Authoritarianism not authority: May and Corbyn too seem to think that as leaders they do not need to persuade those who disagree or show by their actions what they claim to be or reassure the hurt and left out; mere assertion is sufficient. (“This agreement is good.” “I have always been against racism.”) Leaders have no responsibilities as leader beyond implementation of a manifesto or referendum result, as if this was like following an instruction manual. (And if it were, it would be an IKEA manual with key pages missing.)
If MPs are unhappy or dissatisfied or being attacked, well, they can come and see them. But a leader should not be expected to do anything themselves to deal with dissatisfaction or its causes. Nelsonian blind eyes are held up to bullying even as the leader’s acolytes do the dirty work.
Man management, emotional intelligence, empathy and apologies are for sissies. Here is the manifesto. Believe in it or get out. There is the complaints form. Fill it in and wait. I’m sorry you’re upset. But it has nothing to do with me. Rarely can have both main party leaders displayed such similar combinations of narcissism, weakness, rigidity, deviousness and blindness to what is happening in their name and under their noses.
Casting out the unbelievers. There have always been true believers, usually few in number until success came. Thatcher famously asked “Is he one of us?” But she never totally shunned her wets and some became some of her most successful Ministers. Now there is talk of saboteurs and traitors and people who have been party members for years being derided as not proper Labour or Conservatives, of being no loss. Years of service count for nothing.
Demands for loyalty are made to a leader who consistently showed little loyalty to his own leadership. His disloyalty should be considered principled and everyone else’s to him unacceptable lèse-majesté. Even the very concept of legitimate opposition and disagreement is seen as tainted and unwelcome. Deselections are in the air. The wagons are drawn ever tighter. If you’re not with us, you’re against us.
This is not the normal politics of discussion within a broad church. It’s the politics of the sect, of paranoia, of exclusion, of intolerance, of a bossy rigid authoritarianism too insecure or unwilling to debate or admit the possibility of being wrong, of looking for enemies and scapegoats, of feeling victimised and misunderstood even when you’re in charge and victory is in sight. And the more it is criticised the more it is convinced that it must be right, that criticism can only be malicious, a smear, invented or weaponised by those determined to see the project fail.
And so we get to the Stab in the Back Myth– if the project, whatever it is, fails it cannot ever be because it was wrong or badly implemented or irrelevant to people’s real needs or because its inherent contradictions could not be reconciled or because it promised the undeliverable or because the leader passively enabled the wickedness of others. No, it can only be because others undermined the party, the manifesto, the government, the leader. Someone else is always at fault.
Scapegoats are fashionable again. Jews, of course, as they have always been. How dare Luciana Berger raise Corbyn’s support for an anti-semitic mural just as Labour’s local election campaign started. And the EU – that perennially useful scapegoat for Britain’s ills. The Irish, impudently and tiresomely insisting that Britain keep to a promise not to put at risk a hard-won peace.
Plus a host of others: business, Remainers, civil servants, Blairites, anyone remotely sceptical of the idea that maybe – just maybe – the process of Brexiting has developed not necessarily to Britain’s advantage, anyone concerned that it is Corbyn’s politics, speeches, actions and inactions which have led to the spread of anti-semitism and intolerance in his party and render him the wrong person to lead it or the country.
When the Withdrawal Agreement was finalised last November, Juncker was asked what he would miss when Britain left. He mentioned British pragmatism. Judging by the state of our two main parties, that is something we lost a while ago.